Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Down From the Mountain
First, get a cup of coffee or tea, and settle in. This is a long one.
I walked along a river deep and rapid. I walked north. The river ran south. We parted company when the mountains started.
I walked five days, all of them clear and bright and beautiful and blessedly long. Pilgrimage makes time stretch out. So much happens in just a few hours out there, a strange phenomenon I think is tied to moving along at a human pace.
I see so much more when I walk. I realize I haven´t really smelled things for a while. I haven´t looked up, not since... since when? When did I last look up at the gables of a building, or a jet-trail, or a slow-flapping stork?
On this camino I did lots of looking up. The trail goes up, it feels like the climbing never stops. My gaze went up. The sky is massively wide in the mountains, and it made me breathe deeper. The sky and sun and stars feel so much nearer up there. The air is clear, almost steely in the morning. Shadows are sharper. And the afternoon light... ah! It is golden, faded and rich and saturated as an old Kodachrome photo.
Yes, I found the stretch of “lost camino” my fellow camino-heads asked me to figure out. It wasn´t difficult to locate, as a regional hiking association decided to waymark it last fall with handsome, meter-tall wooden tablones. They released a booklet detailing the route a mere five days before I set out on my hike... and I happened into the Tourist Office in the town of la Robla and was given one, with compliments. With great rejoicing I set out, confident now that my hike through the high sierra would be trouble-free and spectacular.
It was spectacular, anyway. Two days of the most lonely, isolated, exhausting, and breathtaking mountain country I´ve ever walked. I saw (and heard) barking deer, and silent foxes, and the tracks of some critters very large indeed. I patted the noses of fuzzy foals and calves and lambs, performed gymnastic feats with barbed wire, electric fences, manure lagoons, and a 6-kilo backpack. I slept, alone, in a 12-bed albergue so new that some of the mattresses still wore their plastic wrappers.
But it was cold up there, up high. And this winter has been a rough one, with more rain, ice, and snow than anyone´s seen in ten years. And as I learned very quickly, there are still tons of snow up there, as late as mid-March, even with temperatures in the 20s.
The snow is melting, which turned parts of the camino into wide, fast-flowing streams. And when the trail makes a turn ´round the face of a ridge, sometimes I walked straight into snowbanks, snowfields, drifts of snow. I wore good waterproof hikers, but no gaiters, nothing to keep the white stuff from soaking my socks and dropping down my ankles and wetting my feet.
And the beautiful new trail markers, and the old reliable yellow arrows? They were there, somewhere, maybe. Under the snow. I was glad I had a compass and a good topo map. I blessed the Girl Scouts and the Pitt Orienteering Club for teaching me, many years ago, how to navigate. Otherwise, I could have been in trouble.
I did see one other hiker. It was a man, using two hiking poles, walking purposefully across a pristine valley and up the mountainside toward me. He moved incredibly quickly. He did not wave or stop, even though he had to see me. He vanished over a ridge well above where I stood. He carried a red backpack. He left no tracks. I think he was the devil.
Long story short: The high sierra portion of the Camino San Salvador – between Buiza and Pajares Pass -- is perfectly walkable for pilgrims with a high level of fitness, compass-reading skills, and good sense enough to pursue it in snow-free months. It is by far the most scenic and difficult camino I have attempted. I was foolish to try it with snow so deep and directions so vague.
I did it, I found my way, and I am very glad I didn´t get hurt or lost. ´Cause my carcass would probably still be up there somewhere. I am very, very glad to be done with it, and back here in my cozy house at a mere 900 meters altitude! (for the hardcore hikers I am posting complete trail notes on the CSJ site and Piers Nicholson´s Camino Santiago site, soon as I get the time.)
After the two days of channeling Heidi I was surprised at how well I still felt. Friday night I met Javier and Nieves at the pilgrim hostel in Pajares, the mountain pass... Javier is a jolly camino head from Madrid known far and wide. Nieves, his sister, is a ball of fire, full of joie de vivre. They were finishing the Camino Salvador, which they did in weekend stages.
We set out down the pass on Saturday morning.
There was no food or coffee for the first eight kilometers. And the first eight kilometers, due to the amazing rising and falling and ruggedness of the path we chose, took us four hours. (waymarking up there is very bad, not due to snow, but to neglect. We were lost for a long time. And when you are lost on the camino with Javier Martin, you are WAY lost!)
Still, it was more amazing beautiful scenery, in the deep green so distinctively Asturian. (when you cross Pajares Pass, you leave Castilla-Leon and enter Asturias – a transition they say is “starting in winter and ending in spring.”) The sky was perfect blue, the trail-sides lined with blossoming wildflowers and fruit trees. Waterfalls, abandoned stone mills, tiny wayside chapels, and cows, donkeys, sheep, and goats, wandering free. Some wore bells. Their music echoed down the valleys.
Javi and Nieves were full of beans, but I began to fade. My previous days of mountaineering had taken a toll after all. I let them pull ahead. We eschewed the scenic mountainsides for the more direct roadside route to Campomanes, the far-off truck-stop oasis. I went silent... speaking even bad Spanish became too much of a challenge.
And then, just after the medieval village of La Frecha, a miracle occurred. Two angels descended in a lemon-yellow sportscar: Milio and Yaya were their names. Milio is a hospitalero, a big figure in the Asturian Camino Amigos Association... and just a big figure all around. He´s one of Javi´s pals. His best girl Yaya had loaded up the little car with a monster picnic. There on the two-lane they tore open the paper over a tray of exquisite pastries and sent the three of us into a sugar ecstasy.
Milio got out and walked with us the next 8 kilometers or so. Yaya, God bless her, took my backpack with her in the car, and drove away. We´d meet her for lunch at Sta. Cristina, a tiny pre-Romanesque church atop a sharp escarpment. (another climb!)
And so we did. It was a magical picnic in a magical place. I could describe it for you but it would sound like one of those layouts in Food & Wine magazine, where the native cuisine (meat-filled rolls, tuna savories, local cheeses (one spiked with paprika!), sweet wine, and hard cider made by Yaya´s mom, And more of those pastries) and the setting (tethered goats, a friendly white dog, a jewel of a chapel, a lawn dotted with daisies) combine with beautiful people (we looked a bit more like Grateful Dead roadies than Beautiful Magazine Pod People, I fear) to make for nauseating reading.
I think it was something about the sunlight, though, that has set the scene forever into my memory. I still was not very verbal. I was struck dumb. Time stopped for an hour or so.
The next day was more walking, 33 kilometers... way too long, but much of it along another riverbank. After lunch, back into the heights again. An old lady in a mountain village gave me glasses of sweet water from her spring – which flowed from the rock face in the next room.
I got to Oviedo just as the sunlight failed. A crowd was gathered in a plaza, watching big men practice their parade steps with a heavy scaffold balanced on their shoulders. They´re getting ready for the Holy Week processions, when the platform will be loaded with holy statues and flowers, and the men beneath will wear hoods and robes.
I nipped into the cathedral to give thanks. I bought myself a glass of superb wine. I felt relieved, and strange, and proud.
By 10 p.m. I was asleep. I did not move for TWELVE hours!